“The Wipers Times” is a made-for-BBC movie based on the famous satirical trench newspaper printed on the Western Front during WWI. The title refers to the name of the paper which was known by the British slang for the Ypres Salient. Members of the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters found an abandoned printing press and one of them had been a printer before the war. Capt. Fred Roberts and Lt. Jack Pearson edited the paper. It was printed from February, 1916 until the end of the war.
The movie is book-ended by Roberts (Ben Chaplin) being interviewed for a newspaper job. He is asked if he has any experience. Queue flashback. In war-torn France, a unit of Tommies discover a printing press in a bombed out town. Since one of them was a printer, it is decided to put out a newspaper. Roberts and Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt) discuss what should be included in the paper. They agree it should be about “optimism” but in a snarky way. The humorous, cynical output draws the ire of a typically hide-bound British officer who takes the matter up with Gen. Mitford (Michael Palin), but the general has a good sense of humor and thinks the paper will be good for morale. This subplot is reminiscent of “Good Morning, Vietnam”. The war keeps getting in the way of production as the unit has to occasionally fight in the trenches. These guys are not rear echelon types. Roberts gets a medal for bravery. They know what the war is really about. Roberts sums it up as being “nothing more than wallowing in a dirty ditch”. Why be glum about it? Look at the humorous aspects. Turn that soldier grumbling into published satirical grumbling. They get moved around a lot. They see action at the Somme, St. Quentin, Amiens, and Ypres. There is some action, but it is brief. Don’t watch this movie if you are a combat junkie.
“The Wipers Times” is a nifty little movie. The acting is good with Chaplin and Rhind-Tutt making a nice team. They combine for their version of the Cronauer character from “Good Morning, Vietnam”, but they are not manic. The movie is actually closer to the vibe of “Black Adder Goes Forth”, only not as silly. Their banter is intellectually cheeky. There is a lot of talking and not a lot of combat, but the dialogue is rat-a-tat in its own way. This gives the production the feel of a play. But because it is a TV production, they have the luxury of seguing into black and white scenes that represent the newspaper’s articles and advertisements. There are even some music hall type tunes. It is certainly a different take on the Great War. But like a vast majority of the other movies, it is distinctly anti-war. And, of course, anti-brass. Since the movie takes the soldier’s point of view, we get an appropriately “gallow’s humor” approach to the war.
The best thing about the movie is it sheds light on a little known aspect of the war. We are coming up on the centennial anniversary of the first edition. I had never heard of “The Wipers Times” before, but researching it for this review was enlightening. The movie is pretty accurate historically. The newspaper specialized in poems (mostly pedestrian, but some high quality by the likes of Gilbert Frankau). There was a running joke that the paper was being swamped by soldier submissions. It also included soldier accounts, satirical cartoons, and mock advertisements. The adverts smack of “The Onion”. Popular topics were the effects of shelling, sex, drinking, and rats. The paper is an excellent primary source on soldier life. It does not really question the war, but it does question how it was being fought. It’s catch phrase was “are we as offensive as we might be?” The movie makes clear that the soldiers were fighting for their mates and the newspaper was written for that same group.
Most of the movies I have waded through in cleaning up my queue have been losers, but this is one of the rare ones that I can recommend. It is by far the best movie about putting out a newspaper in the Great War.
GRADE = B